Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. earned an important and honorable place in our nation’s history on Wednesday simply by raising his hand and taking the oath of office. He thus ended a catastrophic interlude in which democracy was endangered, truth was under attack and decency toward each other was mocked as a form of weakness.
But the 46th president of the United States did something more. By defining with clarity why he was elected and the obligation he has assumed, Biden pointed the country and his presidency toward its most important task: the revival of the democratic spirit and the protection and expansion of democracy itself.
From his very first words, he underscored why this was no normal Inauguration Day and why the 2020 election was anything but a routine exercise. Democracy itself had been challenged for four years, and violently so during the spasm of disrespect at the nation’s Capitol only two weeks ago.
“This is democracy’s day,” Biden declared. “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. . . . We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
The address was billed as a call to national unity, and indeed it was. Neatly capturing the debilitating spirit of the Trump years, Biden spoke of putting aside “exhausting outrage,” adding: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
But the unity Biden sought was not anodyne niceness. It was an expression of demanding values — truth and justice, equality and openness.
“Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart,” Biden said. “The battle is perennial, and victory is never assured.”
And Biden took aim, indirectly but unmistakably, at the dishonesty of the Trump years, particularly the former president’s Big Lie casting Biden’s own election as illegitimate, which led to the desecration of the very building before which he took his oath. The new president’s words could also be read as a sally against right-wing media that fed and amplified his predecessor’s mendacity.
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” Biden said. “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
Biden made no such formal effort on Wednesday. But his speech could be read as a commitment to a New Democracy that “answered the call of history” by ensuring that “Democracy and hope, truth and justice did not die on our watch, but thrived. That America secured liberty at home and stood once again as a beacon to the world.”
Biden didn’t sweep aside the harsh challenges of a pandemic, the economic wreckage it has left in its wake, or the attacks on democracy around the world. He went out of his way to stress our confrontation with the “cascading crises” of “this rare and difficult hour.”
Nonetheless, it was also an hour of hope, its promise captured with exceptional eloquence by Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old poet who offered a closing demand for an “era of just redemption” in which we would “raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.”
As for Trump’s lack of grace in making himself the first president in 152 years not to attend the inauguration of his successor, it turned out to be a blessing. Trump’s absence underscored just how quickly the country was moving beyond him. He gave the day over to Biden, as well as to Vice President Kamala D. Harris and her barrier-breaking rise. She is Black, Indian American and, as Biden proudly noted, “the first woman in American history elected to national office.”
Of course, unity will not come easily. The country still faces, as Biden noted, the dangers of “political extremism, white supremacy” and “domestic terrorism.” Biden’s program has already come under Republican attack.
But suddenly, the nation faced at least the possibility of having normal arguments over normal issues. And it will be a nation, as Biden insisted, that appreciates far more than it did four years ago that democracy is a gift that must be defended, nurtured and treasured.